December 1, 2003

Environment Ministers pledge strategy to harmonize wastewater effluent management

In Victoria, BC last week, Canada's federal, provincial and territorial environment ministers agreed to develop a national strategy for harmonized management of municipal wastewater effluents, and received and endorsed a new Canada-wide standard (CWS) for dioxins and furans from conical waste combustion of municipal waste. These and other issues were discussed at the latest meeting of the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME), hosted by current CCME president Joyce Murray, BC Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection.

The strategy, to be developed within the next three years, will set out a harmonized approach to managing municipal wastewater effluents in order to ensure that these effluents do not pose unacceptable risks to citizens and their environment. It will be based on the principles of flexibility, respect for jurisdictional responsibilities, and a single-window approach for municipalities. Taking into account the significant implementation costs Canadian municipalities will face, the strategy will be phased in to suit appropriate financial planning.

Most wastewater systems are owned and operated by municipalities, but some are owned by provincial/territorial or federal departments and agencies. All wastewater systems must be approved by upper-tier governments, however, and all orders of government are concerned about the environmental and health impacts of wastewater. These include restrictions on recreational and commercial use of surface waters and on drinking water consumption, oxygen depletion and negative effects on fish and wildlife populations. The CCME offers a good forum for the various jurisdictions to collaborate in developing a harmonized approach for managing municipal wastewater effluents which will address both governance and technical issues.

The Ministers received and endorsed a new Canada-wide standard (CWS) for dioxins and furans from conical waste combustion of municipal waste. There are about 45 conical waste combustors operating in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the only province that uses this disposal method for municipal waste. Since the 1990s, however, these combustors have been approved for use only where alternative disposal methods were not feasible, and the provincial government is committed to phasing out existing conical waste combustors by 2008.

The CWS will phase out the operation of conical waste combustors in Newfoundland and Labrador and prevent the operation of new facilities elsewhere in Canada. The phase-out strategy will also result in reduced mercury emissions.

Newfoundland and Labrador will implement a waste management strategy to achieve the phase-out. The strategy will focus on finding and exploiting pollution prevention opportunities and minimizing overall environmental impacts, through measures such as waste diversion, large-scale composting facilities and modern waste management techniques to be put in place across the province.

Conical waste combustors release an estimated 44 grams per year of dioxins and furans to the atmosphere; this source alone makes up 27% of the national total of dioxins and furan emissions documented in a 2001 inventory of releases in Canada. Unlike advanced municipal waste incinerators equipped with effective emission controls, these units use only screens to capture releases of larger particulate matter. Their design makes emission controls unfeasible for reducing dioxin and furan emissions.

Upon completion of their internal approval processes, jurisdictions that are signatories to the Harmonization Accord will sign the dioxins and furans CWS, making it the 12th standard adopted since 1998. Other CWS for dioxins and furans have been approved to address emissions from incineration, coastal pulp and paper boilers, iron sintering and steel manufacturing electric arc furnaces.

Other issues discussed at the CCME meeting included electronics waste, the potential impacts of climate change, children's health and the environment, and greater co-operation among jurisdictions to improve air and water quality. A notable point of agreement was for the development of Canada-wide principles for dealing with waste from electronic products, building on the principles being developed by western provinces.

The meeting further emphasized the need to manage the risks associated with climate change, while continuing to work on mitigation measures. To help frame the discussion of climate change adaptation, the CCME released a report, Climate, Nature, People: Indicators of Canada's Changing Climate. Rather than predicting how climate change might manifest itself in the future, this report offers evidence of how a changing climate may already have affected the environment and the lives of Canadians.

The Ministers also received a report on addressing climate change in environmental assessments, developed by a federal/provincial/territorial committee for consideration in assessment processes.

The meeting also reviewed water issues and transboundary movement of air pollutants across the Canada-U.S. border. With regard to the former, the Ministers agreed to explore conservation measures, including economic considerations, public education and the need for better information. Concerning the latter, the Ministers recognized the importance of the commitments under the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement. They reaffirmed their commitments under the CWS on particulate matter and ozone, and their desire to continue to work with the U.S. to reduce transboundary air pollution. They also underscored the importance of protecting clean areas of the country from both transboundary and domestic pollution.

To further continuous improvement of environmental management, the CCME will serve as a forum for provincial and territorial government input into the five year review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This will be further discussed during 2004. Finally, federal Environment Minister David Anderson was selected as the Council's president for the coming year; the post rotates annually among the environment ministers from the federal, provincial, and territorial governments.

The CCME meeting in Victoria was a carbon-neutral event. The amount of carbon estimated to have been generated by attendance at the meeting (through travel, heating, lights etc) will be offset through the planting of trees by the Tree Canada Foundation.

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